It’s a bit like the dog that didn’t bark. In the aftermath of the devastating bomb blasts in the heart of Mumbai on September 25, there was consternation in New Delhi’s diplomatic circles that the fragile Indo-Pakistan peace process had been derailed for the time being. The world waited anxiously for angry ministers to point an accusing finger at the ubiquitous Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan and The Times in London even churned out a template rant against the “hardliner” deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, who destroyed the brave initiative of his prime minister. Accustomed to the bad, bad world of the West Bank and Gaza where Washington proposes and Hamas disposes, Mumbai was perceived as a text-book illustration of extremism overturning diplomacy.
Inexplicably, someone forgot the script. True, Advani made a reference to the need for Islamabad to prove its anti-terrorism credentials by handing over India’s 19 most wanted criminals, but the allusion to Pakistani responsibility was so tangential and couched in such abstract terms that the headline writers preferred to focus on Mumbai and the sensex bouncing back. In the frenzied search for motives, the omnipresent Narendra Modi jostled with the Archaeological Survey of India for honours. And whereas the responsibility for the killings was pinned on the outlawed Students’ Islamic Movement of India and Lashkar-e-Toiba , even Bal Thackeray preferred to direct his ire at the corrupt ways of the Maharashtra state government that had demoralized the local police. Forever accustomed to being the juju men, there must have been some long faces in Rawalpindi Cantonment for not getting its fulsome and customary credit for killing innocent civilians.
New Delhi’s uncharacteristically muted reaction to the blasts warrants explanations. The first centres on the new spirit of sadbhavna that has gripped the imagination of politicians and hospital administrators. It is by now conventional wisdom in relevant circles that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “hand of friendship” speech in Srinagar last April wasn’t preceded by wide-ranging consultations. It was a unilateral initiative which, while lauded for its cleverness, left many of his political colleagues and the mandarins in South Block both dissatisfied and confused. As intelligence agencies looked unsuccessfully for evidence of Pakistan’s altered strategic priorities and mounted an extraordinary high alert during this year’s Independence Day, the unmistakable conclusion was that the peace initiative has raised India’s threshold of tolerance.
The evidence is worth considering. Despite the headline-grabbing fidayeen attack in Srinagar during the inter-state council meet, the Kashmir valley has witnessed a period of relative calm over the past six months, giving rise to enhanced popular confidence in the elected government of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. The focus of Pakistani-inspired terrorism has shifted to Jammu. That this shift hasn’t received its due share of attention isn’t on account of some wilful media self-censorship but because there has been positive news from Srinagar. It is a fact that the prime minister’s personal stock is extraordinarily high among Kashmiri Muslims and this is reflected in the pressure on the All Party Hurriyat Conference to engage New Delhi.
Petrified of Kashmir’s becoming a nuclear flashpoint, Washington, on its part, is maintaining its pressure on President Musharraf to behave himself on Kashmir. Unlike the first Clinton administration that fuelled separatist impulses in the Kashmir valley, President George W. Bush’s team sees Islamabad as an ally and New Delhi as a strategic partner. Regardless of this important distinction being occasionally blurred and generating a strange moral equivalence, it is important to bear in mind that Washington wants Vajpayee’s peace initiative to progress and, hopefully, even succeed. Consequently, it makes sense for the prime minister to be wary of reacting predictably to provocative acts inspired from across the border. And more so because any ISI involvement in the Mumbai blasts is governed by what intelligence agencies believe is an extraordinarily “high level of deniability”.
Yet, the compulsions of international diplomacy don’t explain everything. Politicians, after all, have a domestic constituency to cater to and the average Bharatiya Janata Party supporter expects its government to respond to the Mumbai blasts in a style familiar to the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. That the response has been marked by relative restraint is because the blasts have brought into the open a far more worrying phenomenon — the rise of an indigenous jihadi movement. Monday’s blasts in Mumbai were the seventh since December last year and so far the evidence points to the involvement of erstwhile SIMI activists, perhaps acting in tandem with the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Investigations have also revealed that the terrorist cells have been organized, not by ISI “sleepers” who may at best have provided the funding, but by local Muslims, many of them professionals and from middle class backgrounds.
The implications of this are grave. The Mumbai blasts of 1993 were an ISI operation that was subcontracted to the Dawood Ibrahim gang. Likewise, the attacks on Red Fort and Parliament two years ago were direct Pakistani operations with minimal outside involvement. The recent acts of terrorism are the handiwork of ideologically-motivated individuals committed to a pan-Islamic jihad. Like the Bali bombers or the notorious Anwar Sheikh, they are driven by a passion larger than the strategic objectives of Pakistan. It is, for example, no accident that the terror networks in Maharashtra derive a disproportionate number of recruits from the followers of the ultra-orthodox Ahle Hadis sect that rejects modernity. The perpetrators of the Godhra carnage that killed 52 Ram sevaks and triggered riots in Gujarat were followers of Tabligh Jamaat, an orthodox and ostensibly non-political sect. The new terrorism in India seems to be the logical offshoot of an Islamic revivalism marked by religion, a determination to rid the world of a debased, materialist culture and regain the utopia of 7th century Arabia.
In the aftermath of 9/11, India spoke with pride about the complete non-involvement of its Muslims in either Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida or in the international Islamic brigade that propped up the taliban. After the Mumbai blasts that certitude has taken a battering. The whole of India, and not just Kashmir, it would seem, is now vulnerable to jihadi terrorism. Home ministry officials refer to organizations such as the Muslim Defence Force and Indian Muslim Mohammadi Mujahedeen that have created cells in southern India. These cells may soon become operational. There are additional fears that five Muslim organizations could become the nucleus of a very different insurgency in Assam. The mushrooming of madrasahs, particularly in border areas, adds to the concern. Even the West Bengal government is alarmed by what is being taught to impressionable minds. There are reports of at least 300 Indian Muslims, with a disproportionate number from Hyderabad, who have received training in jihad in Pakistan. Fuelling their millenarian intolerance of unbelievers are itinerant preachers from countries ranging from Indonesia to Sudan. Four months ago, the Gujarat authorities estimated that 107 foreign Islamic preachers, 50 of them from Indonesia, were in the state simultaneously.
The Mumbai blasts of the past year have alerted India to a new threat. Recognizing its true nature is disconcerting because it violates cherished secular principles. But pretending the danger does not exist or conveniently pinning the entire blame on Pakistan and other unnamed “outsiders” is unacceptable. Participating in the international coalition against terror has been a foreign policy issue so far. Now, it is also a domestic imperative. India always had a minuscule fifth column that was emotionally at odds with its nationhood. Now, it has acquired the technology to wage war.